Mort Sherman hadn’t even officially started his job as superintendent of South Orangetown Central School District in Blauvelt, N.Y., when a school board member approached him at a June welcoming reception and asked his opinion about having a crèche in the local school during Christmas.
“I first thought I hadn’t done my homework before taking this job,” recalls Sherman, who is now a superintendent in Alexandria, Va. “But I quickly figured out a conversation is going on in this community about what the right symbol was for Christmas in their public schools.”
More and more communities around the country are having similar conversations about what administrators and lawyers call the “December dilemma” — whether public schools can legally include the religious messages of the holidays in musical programs and displays that have become tradition in communities around the country.
The answer, according to the courts and those who have negotiated policies on the issue, is that they can. But as communities become more religiously and culturally diverse, striking a balance that keeps constituents happy and the school out of court can be difficult.
The solutions range from abandoning all holiday programs — sacred and secular — to making the Christmas musical part of a year-round curriculum on comparative religions. But the general guidelines coming from court rulings for musical performances are that the religious component cannot dominate the program and all the music should have an educational purpose for the students involved.
A recent poll by Lifeway Research, which is affiliated with the Southen Baptist Convention, found a large majority of Americans (86 percent) agree that public school choirs and bands should be allowed to perform religious Christmas music.
Americans from the South (65 percent) are most likely to strongly agree that religious Christmas music should be allowed. By comparison, 57 percent of those in the West strongly agree.
But public opinion can be trumped by a threat of legal action. That was the case earlier this month in Hawaii, where the state Department of Education canceled an annual Christmas concert at Moanalua High School.
In a letter to the department, the Hawaii Citizens for the Separation of State and Church said the school's involvment with the New Hope Church, which handled ticket sales to the event that generated proceeds for charity, crossed the line of entanglement between a public school and a church.
"Generally speaking, the ground rules under the First Amendment are clear," said Charles Haynes, director of the Religious Freedom Education Project, who has crafted national guidelines for addressing religion in schools. "But getting schools to understand how to apply them is challenging."
Hawaii education officials did not return calls seeking comment. But Haynes, who has mediated or consulted on many disputes involving school Christmas musical programs over the past two decades, said the courts have provided guidance for schools to preserve the religious aspects of Christmas without violating the First Amendment's establishment clause, which prohibits a school from endorsing a religion.
One of the more notable court rulings came out of Utah, where a Jewish student at West High School sued the Salt Lake City School District, the school and its choir director for having to sing two contemporary Christian songs during commencement.
The federal courts ruled against Rachel Bauchman's claim that her First Amendment rights were violated by having to perform music against her religious beliefs, ruling that a religious piece of music in a school program does not constitute endorsement.
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